Phils' 'pen erases doubt after Thomson's early hook on Suárez

October 8th, 2023

ATLANTA -- If you’d been paying attention to the American League Wild Card Series in Minnesota last week, there was likely a feeling of déjà vu when you saw Phillies manager Rob Thomson pacing out to the mound in the fourth inning of Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Saturday night at Truist Park.

Akin to the Blue Jays’ decision to pull starter José Berríos against the Twins, Thomson made the long walk to remove from his start vs. the Braves after just 3 2/3 innings. Suárez was yanked at the first sign of trouble after skating through the first three frames, allowing just one hit and one walk while striking out four. The 28-year-old lefty was pulled after both Matt Olson reached on a seeing-eye single and Ozzie Albies got aboard via a fielder’s choice.

With a 1-0 lead to protect, Thomson called on right-hander Jeff Hoffman to help the Phillies tightrope out of danger. Hoffman walked Marcell Ozuna, but then struck out Michael Harris II using a pair of nasty splitters, leaving the Phils’ slim lead intact and letting out a gargantuan yell on the mound.

“It was Hoffman after Suárez no matter what,” Thomson said following the Phillies’ 3-0 win over the Braves in Game 1. “Just wanted to make sure we got the right spot for him.”

“We’re always pretty splitter- and slider-heavy,” Hoffman said. “It so happened that we got two guys in a row that a splitter or slider worked well [against] either of them.”

The move worked out. The Phillies' bullpen continued to deal, covering 5 1/3 innings and striking out four while allowing just four hits and two walks. But in the moments before Hoffman’s strikeout, the same question ran through a lot of brains in the ballpark and at home -- why the early pull?

It’s not as if Suárez’s effectiveness drops the second time through the order. In the regular season, opposing hitters had a 108 OPS+ (relative to league average) against Suárez the second time around, a decrease from a 115 OPS+ the first time that they faced him. And on Saturday against the Braves, he was dealing. The highest exit velocity against Suárez from the 13 batters he faced was 92.2 mph, with the average exit velocity sitting at a meager 83.1 mph.

The decision was determined by the man waiting in the batter’s box. While Ozuna popped out in his first at-bat, Thomson wasn’t going to let the slugging righty see Suárez for a second time, especially with runners on. In the regular season, Ozuna's OPS against lefties was nearly 100 points higher (.980) than what he put up against right-handers (.882).

To make the case for pulling Suárez even stronger, Ozuna was at his best when he faced a starting pitcher for the second time in the regular season. He slashed .359/.436/.675 in those situations, with a whopping 194 OPS+ and 10 homers. For Thomson, it was the perfect reason to make a switch.

“I thought Ranger was really good,” Thomson said. “Just thought right there on Ozuna that we’d stopped the momentum, and we ended up walking Ozuna and getting the strikeout on Harris. And Hof’s been doing that for us all year, coming out in third innings and getting out of it. So I just thought it was time.”

Before Game 1, Thomson alluded to the off-day the following day as a means for him to get aggressive with the usage of his bullpen. The Phillies used seven pitchers, tied for the most in a postseason game in club history. No reliever worked more than an inning, so it was not a total “burning of the boats” just one game into the NLDS, but Thomson certainly felt more comfortable making the early hook knowing that a day of recovery was on the horizon.

“It was one of those things where we were maybe ready to go a little earlier, maybe an inning or two earlier,” Hoffman said. “But yeah, it was pretty much to plan.”

While the plan made its rounds through the bullpen staff, rumors of an early hook did not reach Suárez by design. Thomson shared that he and the coaching staff contemplated telling the lefty about the truncated start, but decided against it, electing to explain the move after the fact. Suárez appeared to be caught off guard by the removal, which left him visibly disappointed in the dugout in the immediate aftermath.

But a decisive victory heals all. And while Suárez may have been disappointed in the moment, the confidence he held in the rest of his team soothed the wound ever so slightly.

“When I get on the mound, I want to go deep into games,” Suárez said via translator Diego Ettedgui. “That’s what I expect out of myself. But we turned to the bullpen and they did a great job, so you really can’t say anything bad about it.”

And in terms of the pregame plan, Suárez was glad to be left out of the loop by Thomson.

“It was perfect, because I know myself as a competitor,” Suárez said. “It would have taken me out of my comfort zone. Because like I said, as a starting pitcher, you want to go deep into games. If I had known it was going to be a short outing, it probably would have taken some energy out of me.”